In my opinion, this statement can not be definitely answered. However, I do have some certain facts and interpretations that can be deduced to construct an argument for this question. The expression ‘purge’ is defined as “to remove undesirable elements from… ” and in my opinion, the term ‘purge’ in the context of Russia in the 1930s described exactly this. The Purges were the political method adopted by Stalin to rid himself of critics, potential rivals and their supporters.
In Russia during ‘the Great Terror’ which lasted between 1928 and 1940, there were three major purges: the military purge which began in 1937, the NKVD purge which began in 1939 and the most major purge of all; the political purge, also known as the Yezhovschina, which began in 1936 up until 1938. I agree with the statement to a greater extent than to which I disagree with it, because this method of “cleansing” of opposition to Stalin’s regime was evident even before the purges began. For example, ‘collectivisation’ and ‘industrialisation’ featured murder on a massive scale.
In 1928, there was subtle evidence of opposition to Stalin and his plans when the peasantry did not agree with the ‘collectivisation’ and as a result thousands of Kulaks were executed and an estimated 5 million were deported to Siberia. In my opinion, this is evidence of Stalin’s cruel, exaggerated tactics to handle opposition. The Kulaks had “opposed his plans” by not supplying enough food to industrial workers, which in Stalin’s mind jeopardised the industrial revolution Stalin was trying to create and therefore jeopardised Russia’s attempt to become a strong nation.
Furthermore, when the Ukraine did not agree with ‘collectivisation’ and openly disagreed with Stalin, he personally manufactured a famine which killed 6 to 7 million people and broke the peasants’ resistance. It is evident that he personally manufactured the famine, because it was caused due to the massive increase of the grain quota that the peasants had to give to the state, which Stalin had ordered. Moreover, the Five Year Plans were based on the same methods and were implemented in an identical brutal fashion to the purges, which led to the death of millions of labourers.
This therefore brings me to a conclusion that Stalin had experience with this form of “cleansing” which enhances my agreement with the question that he was personally responsible for the Purges, because it was not a new tactic seen in Russia during his reign and furthermore he had the knowledge that this type of method worked to his advantage. In my opinion, the Purges were a historical parallel to the methods used to stop the opposition to the ‘collectivisation’. However, the ‘collectivisation’ methods were only small scale.
I therefore judge that the treatment of opposition in the peasantry by Stalin during ‘collectivisation’ was a rehearsal for the purging of opposition in political positions and higher ranks, whose resistance would be much harder to destroy. There is evidence of factions in the Party that opposed his rule, such as; Riutin circulated a 200 page anti-Stalin document suggesting that Stalin should be removed from his post as leader. It will be evident therefore that Stalin believed that these differing viewpoints were an unacceptable threat.
Anyone not unquestioningly loyal to Stalin were to be “weeded out” and this is only one of the reasons put forward by historians as to why the purges began. Another reason is that Stalin wanted total control and rapid industrialisation of USSR, the Gulags used during the purges offered free labourers to help boost the economy whilst simultaneously ridding Stalin of opposition. Stalin knew these Gulags existed as the NKVD brought reports concerning them to his attention. I believe, with the advantage of hindsight, that the methods and outcomes of the political purge were to rebuild the Communist Party in the image of Stalin ‘The Great Leader’.
This factor can be enhanced with the evidence that between 1936 and 1938, 850,000 (36%) of the total membership were purged from the party. However, it can be argued that Stalin was merely ridding the Party of members who were not committed to the Communist rule. The question of loyalty of members can be evidence, because the benefits, such as, high wages and better quality housing could have enticed anyone to want to be a member, even those who were not fully devoted to the Communists and were there for their own personal benefit. Stalin’s personal responsibility is probable for Kirov’s assassination.
However, due to the positive effects of the assassination in Stalin’s favour, it can be argued that he was completely responsible. An advantage of the murder was it sparked the escalating series of purges; therefore it is questionable whether his assassination was used as an excuse by Stalin to begin the Purges. Evidence to back up this statement is Stalin immediately under emergency “security” legislation was entitled to arrest people thought to be trying ‘terrorist acts’ against the regime. Furthermore, he was allowed to put them on trial with no appeals and he ordered the NKVD to sentence the guilty to death.
In my opinion, evidence to suggest Stalin killed or had Kirov killed is that he may have been jealous of him. Kirov was twice voted in majority over Stalin concerning a policy of reconciliation put forward by Kirov in 1934 to stop arrests and executions. The Politburo voted in favour of Kirov with a significant majority, therefore this opposition, in my opinion, made Stalin feel insecure in his position as leader and it may have caused him some embarrassment, which I believe angered Stalin and caused him to retaliate and rid himself of Kirov (opposition).
My evidence to support up this statement is that the assassination came in December 1934, only a few months after the defeat and public humiliation that Stalin had suffered. Furthermore, Kirov was a popular figure within the Party, seen by the popularity of the vote in his favour, which therefore leads me to believe that Stalin was the only person with a sufficient motive for murder. Moreover, the ‘snow ball’ effects, were that the man caught red-handed for the murder Nikolayev was apparently part of a larger conspiracy led by Trotsky, which resulted in the arrests of Kamenev and Zinoviev and 15 other party members.
This suggests to me that Stalin had planned Kirov’s death and planted the culprit, in order to rid himself of potential opposition in the long term. Stalin’s personal characteristics and personality are a huge factor, proving that he was personally responsible for the purges. For example, Stalin was very paranoid, he consigned the ‘old Bolsheviks’ to oblivion and their successors or replacements the same fate. Stalin trusted no-one and the novelty of what some of them had achieved for him during the Purges had expired and therefore he wished to replace them.
Evidence to enhance this point is Iagoda (Head of NKVD for the first two purges) did not seem to please Stalin anymore (the novelty had worn off) and he was removed from his post and replaced immediately with Yezhov. This also ties in with another reason for the beginning of the purges. Stalin wanted total submission from his Party and the USSR and Iagoda was obviously not displaying enough persistence anymore, as he did not want to press charges against Rykov. This leads me to believe that Iagoda was removed due to the slightest hint of ‘insubordination’.
Furthermore, one person who would witness the ‘real’ Stalin, for example, his habits, plans and complete personality would be family members. Therefore I believe Stalin had a ruthless personality and he was mainly, if not completely responsible for the purges. My evidence is that his wife committed suicide after she openly criticised him for the suffering collectivisation had caused countless Soviet peasants. These desperate, dramatic actions demonstrate her fear of Stalin. She of all people would witness that he was capable to be vicious and that her criticism was a fatal mistake.
Another factor to show Stalin’s personal responsibility, is that the ‘show trials’ were a legal process, therefore how did Stalin not know they were happening. Furthermore, several of these trials were held in Moscow as an example for the trials of local courts. How did Stalin not become aware of this, they were being held in the capital city! The ‘show trials’ allowed the NKVD to execute whoever was suspected of treason. The NKVD prepared lists of people it proposed having shot or sentenced to long prison terms. Yezhov (Iagoda’s successor) showed the lists to Stalin, who read them and made corrections.
The lists were signed by Stalin before the trials took place. I believe that the trials were obviously just a formality and it is no wonder that the courts could pass hundreds of sentences a day. Furthermore, the evidence for conviction was usually non-existent; it relied on the confessions extracted through brutal tactics such as torture and threats against family members. This may be seen to have been a good excuse to rid him of opposition, because the key ‘show trails’ where this unfairness took place was the trials of Kamenev, Bukarhin and Zinoviev between 1936 and 1938 for Kirov’s murder.
Moreover, Stalin must have known who was on trial, as the NKVD reported to him all the time when they had carried out arrests and tortures. I believe Stalin can be blamed for the purges of the military, NKVD and the people. In the military purge all 11 Commissars were removed from office, 3 out of 5 Marshals and 35,000 Commissioned officers were imprisoned or shot. This led to deterioration of the army leadership and a less effective Red Army. Furthermore, this deterioration can be blamed for the successful invasions of Germany into USSR in 1941 during the war.
I believe Stalin was aware of these facts, because he would have questioned why his forces had diminished and he did not because he was fully aware. Furthermore, the NKVD purge, in my opinion, was a method used by Stalin to make sure those who knew about his personal involvement in the purges were killed. He wanted to erase the evidence that he was personally responsible. Evidence to support my theory is that Iagoda (former Head of NKVD) was arrested and executed immediately in March 1937 and so too were 3,000 of his former NKVD assistants.
This is also evident later on with Yezhov in February 1939, when he ‘disappeared’. This removal of the NKVD may have been used so Stalin was able to blame the purge of ‘society’ on the ‘fascist elements’ in the NKVD, whom he blamed were responsible for the deaths of innocent people being executed. Once they were dead, they could not argue with this and therefore Stalin had successfully shifted the blame onto someone else. The social purge saw the death and imprisonment of millions of ordinary people, who I believe Stalin used in the Gulags to his advantage, as free labourers to make USSR strong.
However, it can be argued that although Stalin benefited directly from the death of some opponents, many millions of those purged were total “unknowns” to him therefore he had no motive to get rid of them. A factor to suggest Stalin was not personally responsible for the purges is that he was merely continuing the brutal doctoral system installed under his predecessor Lenin. A historical parallel to Stalin’s purges using brutal tactics on a large scale through the use of the NKVD to handle opposition is Lenin’s use of widespread torture and executions through the Cheka to deal with counter-revolutionaries during the Civil War.
Stalin was a great Lenin supporter and a very committed communist, with his inadequate education; he had no other sources of ideas. Furthermore, under Lenin between 1918 and 1920 the opposition were arrested and put in ‘concentration’ camps, similar to the Gulag camps that Stalin used during the purges. Moreover, Lenin had handled opposition within the Party during his regime, as he made a decree on ‘factionalism’ to prevent party splits, which Stalin intended to achieve from the purges. I have considered a wide range of reasons which agree or disagree with the statement.
However, I believe that Stalin was to a large extent responsible for the purges during his reign as Party leader, but not completely. In my opinion, the purges were a method Stalin used to set the stage for gaining absolute power in USSR by employing police repression against opposition within the Communist Party. My evidence for this is that removal of opponents began in the Politburo when Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev were expelled from the Party in 1927. Furthermore, by 1934, Stalin was unchallenged as leader of both party and state.
Stalin did not try to replace the members he had removed and this therefore has connotations that he wanted not only them removed permanently but their position to be absent. Moreover, he managed to bring both party and state into complete submission to his rule. The Soviet society were under do much pressure and feared Stalin, due to denunciations, which were common due to the examples that he was making through the ‘show trials’ in Moscow. I believe he almost achieved absolute power using the Great Purge against suspected political and ideological opponents.
Moreover, Stalin must be held personally responsible for the purges, even if he did not suggest the brutal tactics used by the NKVD, such as torture and execution, he was still aware of what was happening. For example, 5% of the population were arrested and 7 million people were held in Gulags. Additionally, purges waged were within the key Soviet institutions, such as, the Army and NKVD. Surely Stalin was a aware of what was happening an I believe he is responsible, because he was aware of the actions being taken and he had overall control of the NKVD and he could have stopped this happening if he had wanted to.
I also believe that he was responsible for Kirov’s death. It set off a chain of events which culminated in the Great Terror. I believe Stalin was in need of a pretext to launch a broad purge and he evidently decided that murdering or having Kirov murdered would be expedient. This also enhances my judgement that he wanted to rid himself of opposition, as Kirov was popular and urged to challenge Stalin for leadership, therefore he was Stalin’s definition of opposition and a threat.
The murder would have been “killing two birds with one stone”. However, I am also undecided whether Stalin was personally responsible, because if Stalin was indeed solely responsible and had enough power to control the killing of 30 million people, then why did he have any opposition at all? Furthermore, Stalin’s daughter agreed her father had a paranoid personality, but she believed it was poisoned by men around him, such as Yezhov, so he saw threats everywhere.
This also ties in with the factor that the methods used by the NKVD may not have been Stalin’s idea. For example, it was the NKVD who pushed to be able to lower the death penalty which could be applied to the traitors’ families down to the age of 12. Overall, I believe that it is completely evident that Stalin was responsible for the Purges, even if he did not invent the methods or suggest them to the NKVD; he was the leader of the Party and the state and therefore had the overall control of matters and effects that came about.